Montgomery Business Journal

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Deadly Serious Business

Kwast helps reinvent the Air Force

October 2015
By David Zaslawsky   
Photography by Robert Fouts

Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast is the president and commander of Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base-Gunter Annex. He was recently interviewed by the Montgomery Business Journal’s David Zaslawsky.

Montgomery Business Journal: I’ve read in interviews where you’ve talked about Air University helping to reinvent the Air Force. How does Air University accomplish that? Air University is the place where people come to think critically; to innovate rapidly; to think strategically. When you think critically and think strategically about the problems of our world, you start the process of bringing solutions to bear. Our world has changed foundationally since the Industrial Age and the need for adaptive thinking and creative thinking and critical thinking is the first step to bringing new solutions to a world that is different. That is at the core of reinventing the Air Force – thinking about the nature of the problems and thinking about solutions for those changes.

How do you accomplish that with the students who come to Air University and maybe don’t think in those terms?  I would reject that. I would say that most people who are good thinkers think this way. The Air Force has great thinkers. When you see the Air Force out there and you travel around, you find that people are innovating at the tactical level. They’re innovating at the operational level. People know how to think critically. What we’re trying to do is develop a workforce that can think critically and strategically at a pace that keeps us ahead of the competition. It’s really taking it and injecting it with some energy and some adrenaline. It’s not that people are thinking poorly – it’s that we want to take them to the next level. Like a business, a business stays alive by being adaptive and relevant to the customer. Our job is to be adaptive and relevant to the president of the United States and the nation by providing air power solutions to the biggest problems of our day.

What does tomorrow’s Air Force look like that you’re helping to reinvent? Tomorrow’s Air Force will look like an organization that provides options for our president and that those options are adaptive, where they can change depending on the geopolitical problem the president is trying to solve. It is flexible, where it can move from one objective to another objective quickly and affordably. That it is persistent, where it can endure for as long as the nation needs to project power in order to do whatever it is doing. And that it has the range and the speed to do it in the time that it needs to be done for a world that is accelerating in the need for speed.

You’ve said that the country’s rivals are quick to adapt so that the military must be able to rapidly innovate or those rivals will be a step ahead of the U.S. That’s right. It’s like any living thing – if you do not adapt more rapidly than your competition – your competition will eat you for lunch. The same is true in combat … that team that can adapt and stay relevant more rapidly than their competition – that’s a tough thing.

The consequences are so much more critical when you’re talking about national security versus a company that fails to adapt and goes out of business. A company can go out of business and nobody dies. If we do not stay adaptive and relevant for the nation the national security of America is at risk. The treasure and the blood is at risk – it’s something that is very sobering and why this is deadly serious business.

You’ve talked about Air University becoming a think tank. What are the implications of that? Air University has always been a think tank. It is to remind us of that essential purpose of this place. For example, in the ’30s a group of airmen right here at Maxwell Air Force Base figured out how this new thing called the airplane could change the face of warfare. In the 1950s, you had a group of airmen right here at Maxwell Air Force Base that took this new thing called a nuclear weapon and figured out how that could be a force for peace and nuclear deterrents doctrine was born right here. In the 1970s, a group of airmen right here at Maxwell Air Force Base took this new thing called GPS and stealth and precision and they invented what we have today that has served America for 40 years – the ability to precisely track, target and hold at risk anything on the globe for our nation. This place has always been a think tank for our nation.

I’m not sure if people perceive Air University as a think tank compared to think tanks for political parties to solve issues. The purpose of Air University is to make sure that airmen help our nation win its wars. When I say think tank, it is a place where people think about the nature of the problem and they provide options for strategic approaches that allow us to affordably defend this nation. That is the highest accolade you could have as a think tank – that you provide strategic thinking that provides options for our president.

Problem solving. That’s right.

Maybe problem solving to a higher level than what people are accustomed. That’s what you’re talking about – here’s a problem and how do we solve it. That’s right.

You’ve said that you want “outside-of-the-box” ideas from students at Air University and what will you do with those ideas? I’ll use cyber as an example to answer this question. Anytime there is something new to humanity it takes human beings time to figure out what is going on. Often times, people are slow to adapt because they are stuck in intellectual ruts in the past – meaning that because I have hammered this nail with this hammer this way in the past it is going to work in the future and people get trapped. When I’m saying think outside-the-box I’m asking people to more rapidly innovate by letting go of the paradigms of the past and explore new ways of doing things and cyber is a perfect example. We haven’t even fully recognized how this information age world impacted us and we’ve become so dependent on cyber for our banking systems, financial systems, our power systems, our transportation systems, our information systems, so it affects our economy; it affects our government; it affects our national security. What we have to be good at is thinking outside-the-box and saying, ‘How do we solve this problem?’ Not necessarily with ships, tanks and planes as is the model of the Industrial Age, but maybe in new and creative ways that are not anchored by the paradigms of the past.

In an interview with Defense News, you said that you are being tasked by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Walsh to have projects every year that are connected to the most urgent strategic problems. That sounds different from the past. It’s more of a reminder of our roots. This has always been the intent and purpose of Air University and Air University has always done this to some degree. This is about aligning that effort. That quote is about the fact that the world is coming apart around us. There are some really big problems happening – Putin misbehaving in Europe. ISIS creating chaos in the Middle East. China becoming aggressive in the South China Sea. These dilemmas that the world is experiencing are requiring us to harmonize our thinking so that we are really giving our leaders good, critical options for how we proceed. As our military is contributing to our president and Congress with tools of national power that extend policy and politics – those tools are truly solving the problems our president has. That’s really our job. Our job is to provide America (tools) as Congress and the president and our balance of power take a look at the world around us and the geopolitical environment – they want tools from the Department of Defense that are relevant for the world we’re in. This statement is nothing more than (saying), ‘OK, all the researchers and thinkers at Air University, we want your thinking to be harmonized towards these problems.’

Are you saying more targeted than in the past? That’s right. Focusing them a little bit because it’s really fun to go solve this problem on how the saddle falls off the horse, and that’s a problem and there might be clever ways of solving that. You don’t want to be solving that problem when you have a problem that might be an existential threat to the national security of America. This is just focusing our efforts on the problems that are causing us the most risk as an American dream.

You’ve talked about the importance of Air University ties with industry, academia, research centers as well as Army and Navy think tanks. What is the end product? The end product is an idea that has the blessing of diversity with regard to its design. This is about avoiding blind spots. This is about avoiding the group think that happens when you are only talking to yourself. Any advice we are giving, any option we are giving to the leadership of the Air Force, must be informed by the diversity of thought that truly makes us relevant. Diversity is a powerful game-changer with regard to innovation. If you don’t have it, you are giving solutions that sub-optimize its full potential.

I’ve heard that you want to make Air University more accessible to the public. What does that look like? The community really owns the Air Force because it’s taxpayers’ money that pays for the Air Force. There are trusted partners in this community from university presidents and the different institutions of higher learning to the Chamber of Commerce to different leaders in the community. They are part of the fabric of this city and River Region. There is no reason why those trusted partners like the mayor can’t have a pass to be able to get on base and benefit from this place. There are lecture series that happen here, where we have an auditorium that has some extra capacity. Why not invite professors from the universities that are around this River Region to join us and benefit from the blessing of that conversation?

This is the core of what I am talking about – that we more fully collaborate with civil society in this relationship, because the more America knows about its military, the more powerful America is in dealing with problems when the military has to act. We saw this fail in Vietnam because America was disconnected from the need for national defense and the sacrifice of those that serve. We had a whole generation of those that served America that came home and that were not embraced with the reality of what they did for the country.

That can happen again if we don’t invest in this relationship, where people in the community are able to be a part of the (Air) University more fully. Another way we will do this is with our volunteer program. We have a Web page and when you go to Maxwell Air Force Base you’ll see the Web page for Air University. In the upper left-hand corner is: ‘I want to volunteer or I need a volunteer.’ People can go there and say, ‘I have a project for my church this Saturday and I need 10 people with shovels and a willingness to work.’ You’ll find 10 airmen showing up with shovels. The camaraderie; the communication; the conversations that take place …

That really humanizes the airmen and Maxwell. That’s right, and bring people on base, where they said, ‘We need volunteers on base to do this project with our kids or our school on base is having this open house and we would like firefighters and police officers and educators to come on base and visit with our kids.’ That it’s easy for them to come on base and be a part of that because they’re trusted parts of our society. The only people we’re trying to keep out with those gates is when 9/11 hit. There can be a common-sense approach where the people of the River Region feel welcomed to the base and they are invited onto the base in a way that’s responsible and reasonable and there’s not this sensation that the wall separates us. We are one and we need to act that way.

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